Maryland is supposedly one of the most progressive states in the country. One can make one’s own calculations about what it means that such a state is ready to wholeheartedly embrace government-sanctioned gambling as the easy and cowardly solution to its fiscal problems, despite the fact that the populations most harmed by gambling are the very people good progressives are supposed to care about most. My assessment is that resorting to gambling for state revenue is irresponsible, callous, venal and hypocritical. But an unholy alliance of cynical liberals, who argue for gambling because its ill-gotten tax revenue will support education (and we all know that the more money you pay teachers, the better educated our children will be), greedy business interests, and libertarians, who regard gambling as “victimless,” is now poised to add casino table gambling to the state’s sanctioned traps for its poor, desperate, dumb, corrupt and addicted. should Maryland’s voters approve “Question 7” on the ballot November 6th.
Gambling is not victimless. I had an uncle, my lovable, charming, stupid Uncle Charlie, who worked like a dog as a truck driver and blew much of his paycheck every month on legal greyhound racing, where dogs chase a fake rabbit around a track and those that lose too often are killed and turned into landfill. Charlie’s wife and children seldom saw him, because he had to work extra hours to make up for the money he had blown, and then, of course, he gambled away that money too. His family was always poor, his kids grew up bitter and hard, and his entire family was routinely miserable. There are millions of Charlies, and a lot of them end up criminals, destitute, or dead, wrecking lives, futures and businesses along the way. We also end up having to pay for their poor, addicted choices, in the form of various forms of taxpayer-funded public support.
Maryland and the vast majority of states accepted the devil’s bargain of sucking revenue out of the foolish and gullible in exchange for creating more Uncle Charlies when they took over the neighborhood numbers rackets and started running their own lotteries. This meant, of course, that they had to also run despicable ad campaigns designed by behavioral experts to induce more people, poor people, to regularly raid their meager weekly income for the faint chance to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. The ads don’t tell the potential players to take the money they would have spent to play “Pick Six” or “Lucky Lotto” or “Super Payday” and put it in a bank account, so they could begin saving to send their kids to college, or start a business, or buy some land—oh no. Because the state’s elected leaders want its vulnerable citizen to lose that money, so the craven officials don’t have to face the consequences of raising taxes on those scary voters who should be paying more for education, and who have the resources to do so.
Meanwhile, by running gambling operations themselves, the state now officially pronounces gambling legal, desirable and good. This is a core function of government (one that libertarians deny and detest), the job of delineating the moral and ethical values of society by its laws, conduct and policy. If the government and its leaders not only permit harmful conduct, but engage in it and urge citizens to engage in it too, they have pronounced that conduct good. This is called irresponsible and reckless leadership.
It is also called corruption.
Seeing how much revenue the state could bring in by encouraging minimum wage workers to spend five dollars a day on the gazillion to one chance of winning a 60 million dollar jackpot (“You have to play to win!”)—and knowing, but not telling, that if one of them does win, the odds say that the bonanza will a) last less than five years and b) ruin him—it was a natural progression for Maryland to allow slot machines. Slot machines are a vicious money-stealing device that use Skinnerian psychology to induce victims to throw away vast amounts of money in small amounts, for the pleasure of a moronic game made “exciting” by bells, lights, bright colors, and carefully programmed pay-off schedules. Anyone who can wander through the slot machine section of a casino at 2 am, seeing the shabbily dressed, dead-eyed players pushing buttons and pulling levers, and not be sickened and depressed is either spiritually dead, Robert DeNiro or a Maryland state legislator.
That income, raised at such a cost to the vulnerable citizens that this progressive state and its voters care so, so deeply about, was still not enough, since it was quickly spent by legislators on other projects that the state couldn’t afford. So naturally the next step is casino gambling. Maryland’s sensitive Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, is all for it. Do not doubt that after casino gambling is approved by the people of the state that has already pronounced gambling* good and virtuous, the next revenue grabs will be in the form of state run prostitution and recreational drugs. The state will have officially become the Corleone Family, and will endorse and foster the same moral code and ethical values that made Sonny, Michael and Fredo so happy and successful. Ah, but will the schools be better?
Of course not.
Last week, the Washington Post endorsed Maryland’s casino gambling scheme, in a depressing editorial that should be used in ethics classes as a perfect example of how the slippery slope works, and how principles yield to the seductive logic of “we already did the wrong thing; we might as well go all the way.”
“The real question for Marylanders is this,” reasoned the Post. “Having already approved five casinos in a 2008 referendum, why not agree to a modest expansion that would generate tens of millions more in annual tax revenue for the state, keep gambling proceeds from leaching into neighboring states such as West Virginia and create several thousand new jobs in the bargain?”
No, the real questions is this: is the road to increased government approval, endorsement and encouragement of gambling as a means of raising income at great social cost a road a responsible public should travel?
“Since Maryland embarked on slots-only casinos four years ago, three of its four neighbors — Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia — have upped the ante by allowing table games at their casinos. At the biggest neighboring venue, the gargantuan Hollywood casino in Charles Town, W.Va., at least a third of the customers come from Maryland. Whether or not gambling appeals to you, that’s the economic and competitive reality.”
So the Post’s reasoning comes down to this: Gambling should be approved because everybody’s doing it and making money from it, so Maryland might as well too. This what passes for ethical policy advocacy in 2012.
“We long opposed gambling in Maryland. That position was rendered moot by the 2008 referendum, when 59 percent of state voters approved the five casinos…The arguments against expanding gambling aren’t illegitimate, but they’re unconvincing given how the debate and the reality have evolved. It’s true that slot machines amount to a regressive tax, hurting poor people who can ill afford to play and lose. But table games — the main new element at stake in the referendum — attract more high-rollers than lunch-bucket gamblers.”
What kind of reasoning is this? It articulates an amoral and non-ethical philosophy. The position that state run gambling is wrong, or that anything that one believes is wrong is wrong, is not “rendered moot” by a majority decision to do it anyway! That is never the case. What if abolitionists took such a position regarding the Fugitive Slave Act? How about women’s suffrage? Child labor? Prohibition? Jim Crow? Segregation? Miscegenation laws? If state run gambling is wrong and harmful, and it is, it remains so. Advocating an expansion of unethical conduct because it is already underway shows complete ethical rot. Stepping on a slippery slope is foolish; leaping down it because it’s there is mindless.
This is how societies corrupt their values, and ours.
* Excuse me, gaming. A sure sign that advocates of conduct know, in their heart of hearts, that it is dead wrong is when they carefully construct misleading words to minimize the conduct’s true character. “Gaming” has been the word employed by pro-gambling lobbyists to inflict gambling on the public, because it doesn’t suggest that inducing people to lose money is at the whole objective of the activity. But nobody ever lost their home, business or family playing Clue.
Facts: Washington Post